Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Archive for April, 2011

George Washington starts a tradition

George Washington started so many presidential traditions that you may not be surprised to learn he began the custom of using a Bible (and often, a King James Bible) to take the oath of office, too, on this date, April 30, in 1789. With the capital city of Washington, DC, not even established, Washington’s first inauguration took place at Federal Hall in New York City.

Library of Congress

Just before the ceremony, there was a brief crisis when it was discovered that nobody had brought a Bible. A local Masonic lodge came to the rescue by lending its own King James Bible, a handsome 1767 edition with 300 steel engravings. The same Bible, still owned by the lodge, has since been used at numerous ceremonies, including the inaugurations of Presidents Harding, Eisenhower, Carter, and George H.W. Bush.

Although there are older images of the Washington Bible, we were very pleased to work with the lodge as we produced the Manifold Greatness website to obtain new, never-before-published photographs, one of which appears in the Historic American Bibles image gallery. The gallery includes images of other inaugural Bibles, too, as well as a King James Bible that came over on the Mayflower, one owned by the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, and more.

As recounted in Paul Gutjahr’s book An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (1999), a fifteen-year-old girl at Washington’s inauguration recorded the event in her diary: “Chancellor Livingston read the form of oath prescribed by the Constitution; Washington repeated it, resting his hand upon the Bible. Mr. Otis, secretary of the Senate, then took the Bible to raise it to the lips of Washington who stooped to kiss the book.” Someone else, Gutjahr notes, marked which passage the new president had kissed.

For more about the Washington Bible, see our Links list, which includes links to the Masonic lodge and to the National Park site where the Bible is sometimes displayed. For other books related to the King James Bible, consult our Suggested Reading list.


Easter 2011: KJB at the Globe

The Bible at the Globe. Courtesy Carol Kelly.

“The King James Bible was written to be read aloud. It was a performance text or it was nothing.” This stirring declaration by David Hall, head of classics at Dollar Academy, in his essay in the theater program shown here, suggests one reason behind the plethora of nationwide and worldwide recitals of the KJB in the last few months, including this one at the Globe in London that covered the entire text. The setting provided the perfect link with Shakespeare, whose plays, too, were written to be performed, not read.

I attended the Easter Sunday afternoon recitals of the Gospels according to St. Luke and St. John at the Globe. Four actors, two male, two female, took it in turns to recite the entire texts, in sections of about ten to fifteen minutes each. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of visuals—I was hoping they wouldn’t have someone reciting from a pulpit dressed in Jacobean clothes! In fact, the four young actors were casually dressed, which added not only a comfortable informality to the proceedings but also seemed a good way to reinforce the notion that this Bible still speaks to us today, just as it did four hundred years ago. The text was piped discreetly into their ears with the help of i-players but this did not detract at all from their delivery, which was engaging and fluent. The actors moved around the empty stage, at times addressing the audience, at times delivering their lines to the whole cosmic world with clarity and thought-provoking intensity. They brought out the wonder of the words but also the humor and humanity behind the familiar stories.

Barbara Marten, Globe Bible recital, 2011. Photo: Fiona Moorhead

The recital was designed so that people could come and go freely, and folks taking the tour of the Globe that day were ushered in and out to sample a short section of the recital. I was apprehensive about being able to sit for four hours on a seat with no back, listening to a recital with minimal visuals, but it was far from being a challenge.

The Gospel according to St. John seemed particularly suited to the young actors’ talents. Although not one word was cut, the recital had been carefully structured so that each section ended on a poignant moment or on a passage that was memorable such as, “And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12:47)

The experience made me appreciate not only the power of those words, but also the human voice as an instrument of communication. I thought of seventeenth-century churchgoers hearing the King James Bible for the first time. This recital brought the words to life, where they belong.

Carol Kelly is the Festivals Project Coordinator for the Education Department of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. As she notes here, she attended the April 24, 2011, afternoon performance of the Shakespeare’s Globe read-through of the entire King James Bible, which we previewed in this earlier post.


Shakespeare did not write the King James Bible, no way, no how.

In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Walter “Monk” McGinn (played by Brendan Gleason, here to the right of Liam Neeson) says, “Do you know who Bill Shakespeare was, sonny? He’s the fella that wrote the King James Bible.”

The occasion of Shakespeare’s birthday—traditionally celebrated April 23, though no one knows the precise date—is a good time to offer some reflections about a persistent myth. Since the late nineteenth century, some people have suggested that Shakespeare was involved in the translation of the King James Bible. Just to be clear,

NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. THIS IS NOT TRUE!!!

The reasons this legend developed are complex, and not entirely known, but the idea is preposterous in itself. We know the names and identities of the roughly four dozen King James Bible translators (the number is rough because over time some died or dropped out and had to be replaced). All but one of them were clergymen. The exception, Henry Savile, was included because of his prodigious learning and particularly his exceptional knowledge of Patristic Greek. Indeed, save a few political appointments, all the translators were eminent linguists, the very best scholars of ancient languages—Hebrew and Greek, but also Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic—in England. Some, like Lancelot Andrewes and, judging from the Translators’ Epistle to the Reader, Miles Smith, were also fine writers. But this was not why they were chosen. The translators were not especially interested in what we think of as literary style, and they certainly were not aiming to produce a masterpiece of English prose. Their overwhelming concern was to produce to the most accurate English translation possible of the Bible. The many years of work involved hours and hours of discussions of the most minute details of language: points of grammar, syntax, vocabulary; careful comparison of verses, clauses, and individual words in all the ancient languages, including Latin, as well as contemporary translations in European languages, and all previous English Bible (Tyndale, Coverdale’s Great Bible, Geneva, Bishops’, Rheims); also discussion of theology, ancient history, archaeology. Not very sexy, but that’s what made the KJV!

Literal accuracy was the goal, which is why the English of the KJV sometimes sounds foreign, as in using the word “to know” for having sex (Gen. 4), or Hebrew idioms like “the skin of my teeth” (Job 19) or “the apple of my eye” (Deut. 32), which make little sense in English. Shakespeare, according to Ben Jonson, had “small Latin and less Greek.” This was a little unfair. By our standards, Shakespeare’s Latin was excellent, he just wasn’t as remarkable a scholar as Jonson. There’s no evidence, though, that Shakespeare had more than a little grammar school Greek, and he likely had no Hebrew at all. He lacked the basic skills necessary for Bible translation. He was also not a clergyman; since many clergymen considered players as next-door to brothel-keepers, it’s inconceivable anyone would have considered him as a candidate for the translation team. Finally, although Shakespeare and the King James Bible have been lauded as the twin pillars of English literature since at least the Victorians, they aren’t really much alike. Shakespeare can write fine prose, but he more often writes in verse, and what sets his style apart from other playwrights is the metaphorical density of his language and his invention of words and idioms. The King James Bible is entirely in prose and generally eschews complex metaphor. The vocabulary is also extremely limited. The language of Shakespeare and the language of the KJV aren’t the same.

The one piece of evidence often hauled out in support of the “Shakespeare wrote the Bible” argument is a bit of “code” from Psalm 46. All sorts of people mention this, from Bishops to conspiracy theorists. It goes like this. In the KJV, count 46 words from the beginning of Psalm 46: “shake.” Count 46 words from the end: “spear.” Shakespeare turned 46 in 1610. Thus, so it goes, Shakespeare has encoded his signature in the psalm to mark his secret involvement in the translation. (The more committed cryptographers delve into Kabbala and further supposed number patterns, but I’ll leave this wackier stuff aside.) So many problems with this! First the second 46 count has to leave out the word “selah.” It’s not a word from the actual Psalm but an indicator of performance (no one knows quite what it means), yet it is there on the page, and if you include it “spear” is 47 words from the end, not 46. Furthermore, “shake” and “spear” are in many earlier English Bibles as well, in roughly the same places (45-47 words from beginning and end). Spears are plentiful in the Bible, because they were in ancient Palestine, and people with spears tend to shake them. No great mystery. What’s really in evidence here is an amusing coincidence, discovered by someone with codes on the brain, probably in the 1890s. No one seems to have noticed it before then, which makes it seem rather ineffective as a signature. It’s absurd that Shakespeare would have been involved in translating a Bible, but it’s even more absurd that if he had been involved he would have left his mark in so obscure and meaningless a fashion. Some compare this to medieval stonemasons who inscribed their names on stones in place no one could ever see, presumably as a declaration to God. Shakespeare was not an anonymous craftsman, however, but a popular and successful playwright, whose name appeared prominently on his published work. The more you know about Shakespeare, and the more you know about the King James Bible, the sillier this idea becomes. Imaginative writers like Rudyard Kipling and Anthony Burgess have played around with the myth in their fiction, but that’s where it belongs. In fiction, not in reality.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Bodleian Library Manifold Greatness exhibition opens today!

Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

As reported in our recent post, Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible opens today at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford!

Helen Moore, chair of the curatorial committee, says, “The exhibition reunites some of the books and manuscripts actually used by translators and we hope that it will give a unique insight into the aims and methods of the countless committee meetings that were held in Oxford and elsewhere as the translation took shape.

“It is an enormous privilege that we are able to breathe life back into the translation process for a modern audience, by showing these books and documents in public, some of them for the first time.”

Shown here is the page from the Gospel of Luke headed “Christ is crucified, and riseth againe.” from the unique Bodleian 1602 Bishops’ Bible, on public display for the first time in this exhibition. The handwriting shows the editing comments of the King James Bible translators.

For more information on the Bodleian Manifold Greatness exhibition and the extraordinary and fascinating rare materials on display, consult this announcement.

You can see more about the marked-up 1602 Bishops’ Bible and other rare documents of the translation process (many of which are also in the Bodleian exhibition) in the video Reconstructing the Process on the Manifold Greatness website.


The Debut!

The Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition panels made their debut this past Sunday at Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House, an annual Folger tradition.  It was incredible to see all fourteen panels on display in the library’s New Reading Room. We were truly amazed by the number of visitors who read each panel closely and had questions for Hannibal and me (I should say mostly Hannibal, because I was manning the Folger’s replica wooden printing press for most of the day).

We were very encouraged. I even saw a couple of people taking notes. As a friend commented, this is surely a sign of good things to come.

Steven Galbraith, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Books, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Praise for Manifold Greatness, the book

Named “Pick of the Day” on the Bookshop page of the London Times last Friday, Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible also got a nice review from the Times earlier in the week, on April 9, which described it as: “the beautifully presented and scrupulously edited Manifold Greatness… erudite but never dull,” memorably adding, “Go thou forth and buy it!’” (Update: Sorry, we couldn’t include the direct link here, given the Times site’s restricted paid access.)

Just out from Bodleian Library Publishing, Manifold Greatness is a richly illustrated, accessible account of the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible, told through chapters written by leading scholars who include the curators of the Bodleian and Folger Manifold Greatness exhibitions.

Chapters include the context for the translation, its impact in England, and its reception and cultural influence in America, from the 1600s to the present day. There’s also a chapter on rare KJB-related materials at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Images range from rare early English Bibles to the Algonquin Bible of 1663, Harper’s Illuminated Bible of 1846, and much more.

The book’s editors are Helen Moore and Julian Reid. Contributors include Moore and Reid, Valentine Cunningham, Steven Galbraith, Hannibal Hamlin, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Peter McCullough, Judith Maltby, Christopher Rowland, and Elizabeth Solopova.


The KJV Trail in London


My trip to London (see earlier posts) wasn’t focused on the Bible but English literature—Dickens, The Beggar’s Opera, Shakespeare, Wordsworth—but we crossed paths with the KJV translators many times. Lancelot Andrewes, the prodigiously learned Dean of Westminster, was director of the first company of translators at Westminster (his ornery brother Roger was on the first Cambridge company). I and my students toured Westminster Abbey, where Andrewes and his team worked, in the “Jerusalem Chamber” where King Henry IV died, as described in Shakespeare’s play. We also went to Southwark Cathedral on the Southbank, which wasn’t a cathedral in the seventeenth century, but rather St. Saviour’s Church. The image above is of Lancelot Andrewes’s fabulous tomb in that church. Wherever you go in London, church and theater overlap. Also buried in Southwark Cathedral are playwrights John Fletcher (who collaborated with Shakespeare) and Philip Massinger, Philip Henslowe (who ran the Admiral’s Men), and Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund. Many of the players at the Globe, the Rose, and other theaters, were members of St. Saviour’s. As Bishop of Winchester (from 1618), Andrewes’s palace was next door. He was probably often in St. Saviour’s, though after Shakespeare’s death in 1616. Long before then, however, Andrewes also preached regularly at the court of James I. Since the King’s Men often performed there too, he and Shakespeare may often have been under the same roof. James Shapiro writes about one such possible occasion at Richmond Palace during Lent in 1599. Shakespeare may not have worked on the King James Bible (more on this next week), but he certainly lived in the same city with men who did.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Taking the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe (and beyond!)

In the world of King James Bible celebrations in this anniversary year of 2011, one of the most widely anticipated events will begin this Sunday: reading through the entire King James Bible on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe in London (left).

Five groups of actors at a time, many of them Globe regulars, will make their way through every word of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis 1 to the end of Revelation, over a series of epic readthroughs (audience members, we understand, can quietly come and go). This Sunday alone will include readings from 10 am to midnight, with one half-hour break. Throughout the week, six-hour sessions ending at midnight will carry the text forward, followed by a marathon reading on Good Friday, more on Easter Sunday, and the final round on Easter Monday. For more information, consult the Globe’s own Blogging the Bible!

We’ve noted before the startling number of marathon King James Bible readthroughs this spring, both secular and religious (“Reading the (whole) KJB aloud”). As of today, for example, two churches in Fife are midway through an attempt to become the first churches in Scotland to read the entire King James Bible aloud. The Bath Lit Fest, as we reported, had its celebrity-laden King James Bible Challenge, and in late May, there’s the Hay Festival’s planned KJB reading in 96 hours, to be conducted by churches on both sides of the English-Welsh border. And there have been many more, and, no doubt, more to come.


The exhibition panels have arrived

The traveling exhibition panels have arrived in time to make their debut this Sunday as a part of the Folger Library’s Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House.  Here is a picture of Co-curator Hannibal Hamlin, Exhibitions Manager Caryn Lazzuri, and me posing in front our panel on “Family Bibles.”  I can wait to see all the panels  unfurled in the Folger’s New Reading Room.

Steven Galbraith, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Books, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Manifold Greatness website launches today!

We are delighted to announce the launch today of Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, a major new website marking the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible of 1611.

More than a year in the making, the site includes stunning image galleries ranging from Early Bibles to Modern Life, interactive timelines, original video interviews, and still more special features that allow you to compare translations side by side, examine pages of a 1611 King James Bible in depth, and listen to excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, which takes much of its text from the KJB. (Special bonus: the recordings are from a Folger Consort / Oxford (Magdalen College) performance!) Resources for Scholars guide academic researchers to rare books and other source materials.

Children’s and family pages include a wealth of images, information, new craft videos, games and activities, and more—the screenshot we’ve highlighted here is from Making a Ruff. Trust us, we could go on… but why read about it when you can explore it for yourself? Consider this your personal invitation to jump into the new website today. We’re so happy to share it with you.

The website is part of Manifold Greatness, a multi-faceted project of the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, with assistance from the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. It has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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